By Dr Oana Borcan
As parties tour the country parading their shiny manifestos and skilfully dodging the tough questions from the press, much confusion ensues over the problem of inequality in higher education and how best to address it. On the one hand, Labour and others criticised the Tories for the hike in tuition fees over the past years and for scrapping the £3500 non-repayable maintenance grants for students from disadvantaged backgrounds in August 2016. The implication, as critics suggested, would be that disadvantaged students would be laden with the largest debts, potentially deterring university entry in this group and deepening income inequality. On the other hand, we see the Conservative government raving about the current record number of disadvantaged students in higher education and warning that a Brexit in the hands of other parties will ruin this progress. In defending their policies, the Tories seem to focus more on absolute numbers and Labour, Lib-Dems, Greens and UKIP more on the relative performance of disadvantaged students; In this blog I will (1) go over the numbers and (2) the proposals and, finally (3) discuss the evidence relating to the effectiveness of proposed policies. While I focus here on policies related to the equality of opportunity in higher education, other proposed education policies can be analysed in a similar way.
Do record numbers of disadvantaged students go into higher education? The long answer is here and here but the short answer is yes! Data from UCAS shows that in 2016 there was a record number of 18 and 19 year olds in the UK going to university (465,500 accepted), and also a record number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in England and Wales. The overall increase in 18 year olds more than offset the 2016 drop in 19-year-olds entry rates.
Disadvantaged status is typically defined in two ways: 1) whether the student comes from an area with extremely low university participation rates (not necessarily reflecting the family income); 2) whether the student was eligible for Free School Meal (FSM, which is based on income). Based on the first, in England for instance, the share of admitted students in the population (entry rate) of 18-year-old disadvantaged students went up 1 percentage point to 19.5%, the highest level on record. This means that disadvantaged students are 73% more likely to enter higher education today than they were in 2006.
The second measure makes it easier to understand whether the attainment gap between the poor and the non-poor students is closing. Based on this the entry rates for young people on FSM increased by 0.3 percentage points to 16.1% in 2016. This group is now 80% more likely to enter higher education than in 2006, which is great news. However, the increase in entry rates for non-FSM students from the same state schools was five times larger, placing entry rates for these students at 32.8% in 2016. In other words, low-income students are half as likely to enter higher education (highest gap on record) and they are further diverging from non-poor students.
On the whole, this is possibly the best time to be 18 and ready to go to university, but if you’re a low-income student, you’re still half as likely to enter as non-poor students shoot ahead.
The main Conservative policy states that universities will need to sponsor academies and create and support free schools if they want to raise tuition fees. Giving more responsibility to universities for the quality of primary and secondary education is meant to align different tiers of education and to channel talented students from all backgrounds very early on towards higher education.
Labour articulated two measures which would directly impact students: one is the total removal of tuition fees for all students. The other is to restore the maintenance grants for students from low-income families which the Tories scrapped in 2016.
The Green party also promised to scrap all tuition fees, while UKIP proposed a staggered abolition, prioritising students in STEM subjects. Greens, Lib-Dems and UKIP alike pledge to reinstate maintenance grants for the poorest students.
So Conservatives adopt their typical systemic approach, while the other parties pledge to tackle inequality head-on.
With regards to the university-sponsored schools, there has been a great deal of contention already. While there are a few tens of HE-sponsored schools/academies already (HEFCE presents 20 case studies here), few universities showed interest and willingness to participate in this role until now. Some have criticised the government’s proposal on the grounds that running a schools is completely different from running a HE institution and that sponsorship is not a matter of choice as long as increasing tuition fees depends on it (see, for instance, Leicester University’s provost’s opinion here). HEFCE case-based evidence points out some potential benefits, such as improved school management, curriculum innovation and higher aspirations in students, more applications or interest in HE. However, there have already been problems with downgraded schools, and low enrolment and staff shortages in newly created schools. The biggest challenges cited by universities are the unreasonably high demands for time, coordination and the risk of reputation loss to the universities from low school ratings. No doubt that sharing in knowledge and developing local communities is a very worthwhile investment in the long-run. However, when it comes to the current pressing issue of inequality, there is yet no solid evidence that this sponsorship scheme improves the educational attainment of pupils, let alone that of the disadvantaged ones.
By contrast, there is much less ado about the tuition fees and maintenance grants: we know from IFS research (here and here) that each additional £1000 in tuition fees introduced in 2006/2007 reduced university participation by 3.9 percentage points; and we also know that every additional £1000 in non-repayable maintenance grants for low-income students increased participation by 3.95 percentage points.
But does this mean we should go for the quick fix, inject money and wait for the effect to kick in? Well, there are always more things to consider when thinking sustainably. First, budgets are not unlimited and while the economy is not in shambles, Labour (despite their funding plans) and others could be even more explicit in how they will finance their proposals.
Second, recent research from IFS suggests that accounting for early achievement substantially reduces the university participation gap between the poorest students and the rest. In this case, a complementary policy should be to invest further in reducing the achievement gap already in secondary school.
My reading of all of this is that the university participation gap may not be dramatically large, and may have decreased ever so slightly in recent years, but at this rate and with a Brexit on our hands we have to acknowledge the remaining gap is not going to close itself anytime soon. Thus, we need to ask ourselves: are we comfortable living in a country where the less fortunate are half as likely as the well off to get a chance at higher education? Regardless of the outcome of the next general election, what we can do is to reach out to the local MPs as often as we can and ask them to do their best to close this gap.
 The only other Tory policy related to the tertiary sector is the creation aggregate university investment funds large enough to be listed and attract investors, which is expected to increase the quality and applicability of UK research.